Over the past several weeks, Canadians have turned to trusted sources for information on what to do and not do, to tackle the public health crisis.

From the Prime Minister’s daily press conferences from his front stoop to a group of greatly respected, steady-handed chief medical officers across the country presenting the facts and advice we need, Canadians have been receptive to this directive, one-way approach to communication.

Not so long ago, governments at all levels were consulting citizens on basically every policy initiative and major project. Some of those processes were mid-stream and others in the planning stages when the pandemic became our reality.

One might assume that one-way dispatches from leaders and experts are our new normal for the foreseeable future, or that consultation on issues unrelated to COVID-19 is not of interest to Canadians right now. We wanted to test these assumptions with Canadians.

Research conducted by Hill+Knowlton Strategies from March 27-29 yielded interesting findings.

Canadians think it’s now more important than ever for governments to engage citizens

A majority of Canadians (68%) believe that engagement with all levels of government is more important now than ever. And similarly, 58% indicate that it is still important for governments to consult citizens on issues not related to COVID-19. The machinery of government continues, and so does Canadians’ expectation of having a say on the decisions that impact them.

Is online engagement a solution?

Physical distancing has forced us to find new ways to stay connected – to our colleagues, our family and friends, and our governments – through online methods. The tools are not new, but our comfort and appetite to use them have grown substantially. Who isn’t Zooming or FaceTiming these days?

Interestingly, 78% of Canadians feel that consultations can be as effective online as in person. And if you’re wondering, older Canadians agree with this just as much as younger Canadians do.

A key takeaway – we might be in a moment of crisis, but organizations are still expected to undertake meaningful public and stakeholder consultation to support their decision making.

What should organizations do?

Both governments and private sector organizations planning to move forward with significant initiatives need to review and adapt their engagement strategies.

Some questions to ask are: What are the priorities or projects that must still move forward? Who will be most impacted? And how might they expect to be engaged, given our new reality?

If decisions are still being made and initiatives moving ahead, then consultation becomes essential once again. This will require sensitivity, good timing, new tools and tactics, and strong communication.

Understand how Canadians are willing to engagement online

Online engagement can offer greater flexibility than a traditional open house or public meeting, and the opportunity to get more people involved. It can also circumvent some common in-person engagement obstacles, such as the availability of childcare or physical accessibility of the space.

But what we’re willing to do and how much time we’re willing to spend can vary greatly between in-person and online environments.

We asked Canadians how much time they would be willing to spend to engage online on an issue they cared about. Most (65%) said 30 minutes or less, about 27% might be inclined to do something that takes 30-60 minutes, and only 6% were still on-board if the engagement activity required an hour or more. How often are in-person community or stakeholder meetings less than an hour? It’s probably fair to say it’s a rare occurrence.

We also asked what formats would be most appealing. Online surveys were most popular, preferred by 80% of respondents, followed by online forums selected by 50%. Options like online working groups, video conferences, Facebook live, telephone town halls and Twitter polls were all less appealing.

Prioritize the participant experience

Like in an in-person setting, you want to ensure online consultation participants feel safe in the space. Think about:

1) What is the ideal flow of the engagement experience and what does the participant need to contribute effectively;

2) What safeguards can you put in place to ensure participant privacy, security, and comfort; and

3) What is your troubleshooting plan if the technology doesn’t work as you hope it would.

There are still limitations to online engagement to be considered

Even in the online world, there are barriers to participation, although most appear to be personal, such as comfort in speaking up, lack of interest, or a lack of time. But access to appropriate technology (22%), poor internet quality (16%), childcare (6%), and accessibility (5%) were identified in our research as well, and are important considerations for online consultation planning.

Public engagement in the era of physical distancing and beyond

COVID-19 presents many challenges for governments and decision-makers, and the question of whether to proceed with public engagement efforts is an important one. Our research has indicated that Canadians consider it as important as ever, and are willing to embrace new online methods to participate. The onus is upon organizations to adapt quickly, test the relevance and timeliness of their efforts, and make engagement opportunities available and meaningful.

If you’re looking for more information about online engagement tools or services, check out this resource from the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Canada’s webpage.